Still from Cow (2022)

In the strange yellow light in a barn at night, a pallid tongue emerges, clamped between lips, from a cow’s vagina. Then a head, and a shining eye open. This eye, seeming to see, but not yet even born, begins Andrea Arnold’s film Cow (2021), a documentary that follows a mother cow, and her separated calf, over the last two years of her life. The calf is yellow – they whisper, it’s a girl – and the cow licks her, jaws throbbing, bringing her to colour, pushing down into her soft stomach in provocation until the calf pushes back and she stops licking. Moonlight cuts through the barn slats and we hear that her name is Luma, light.

Combining graphic realness and close attention with a transcendent use of visual and aural qualities, this work joins a larger body of Arnold’s fiction films exploring ruptures in mother-child relations. Within the overlapping cycles and spatial arrangements that are the functional basis of the dairy farm, Arnold draws out repetitions and rhymes: of night and light, breath, sky, milk, and suck, creating an exchange between allegorical and perceptual states.

The film is made of patterns of exertion, inhalation, and exhalation: Luma’s maddening breath as her calf is bottle-fed; the calf’s laboured, light panting as she is stolen away; Luma’s gasping, short shouts heard from the calf’s new pen, like the mechanical, failing roar of a broken chainsaw. Sucking is harnessed and mechanised as a vital force of the farm: the calf is led by sucking on fingers, she learns to suck on a rubber teat and will later have her teats sucked by a pump. Licking is kept by the cows, for care and exploration: in the stimulation of the newly born calf, drawing sensation around its body; in the bull’s licks along Luma’s spine; after the calves have been injected in their faces, tending each other’s punctures.

In Milk (1998), Arnold’s early short fiction in which a woman loses her baby to miscarriage and instead of going to the funeral goes joyriding, a connection is made between milk and fuel. It is the drive, the need inside her: she can’t sit still, she needs to go fast. Ariana Reines writes, in her poetry book, The Cow, about lactate and locomotion, transportation and technology, how they all, from the beginning, bear marks of the maternal, ‘What suckles, what fuels, what lulls you to sleep’1[1]. As the calves run down the road in the closing credits of Cow, the song Milk by Garbage plays: a steamy disembodied sound as though emerging from the air, ‘I am milk, I am red-hot kitchen, I am cool, as the deep blue ocean’, and there is this dissolution of the cow into matter and meaning. A transmission.

The blue and white image on a live ultrasound of Luma’s womb recalls the clouds in the sky when the herd go out to graze. Where the markings of the cows seemed like an exposure of the sky onto their skin, and the scan becomes a matter-time continuum from the endless sky to the minute future body.

Although the specificity of the cow and the processes and matter within the farm environment is maintained, there is an entwined concern with resemblances, correspondences, and connections with human bodily experiences. This interconnection of animals with human intimacies and violence is a relationship that Arnold has handled in different ways in her previous films. In both Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003), the creatures make literal interruptions in moments of human sexual intimacy which become significant narrative turning points, revealing depths of characters and charges of relations. They are also recipients, their bodies containers for outpourings of human aggression and affection.

Still from Cow (2022)

Luma is led, at night, away from her calf to the milking shed, her placental chord still swinging by her udders, and she stands on the concrete in an icy blue light shouting toward the camera. Her calf may not be there when she goes back. The scene is long, her stare hard. It is a cold, prolonged, repeated severance. The separation, cyclicality, and entrapment of the nightly milking routine becomes materialised in the rotary milking station: a slow merry-go-round, where one revolution is based on the time taken to milk a cow. They stand in a huge, raised circle, facing inwards, hooked up by their teats which must be stimulated to release oxytocin in order to give their milk, where they take a slowly spinning, hormone fuelled night-ride around a void while they are emptied. Music is always playing on the radio in the milking shed, filling the expansive leaky space with a broadcast from elsewhere. While the rotary movement makes the lights twinkle – red spotlights on the yellow glare of equipment and electric blue moonlight on metal, mud, and hair—yearning, ethereal, lonely drifts of songs create a kind of psycho-acoustic space that accumulates and hovers in the cowshed. From the mutual alienation of two voices softly singing ‘tear me to pieces, skin, and bone, hello, welcome home’ concurrently but apart [2]1to the loping, preservative energy and deadened emotion of a chorus of the same voice reluctantly repeating, ‘It’s going to take a bit of work, now that you’re here [3] to the continuous, seeping change flowing between voice-instrument-sound evoking motion without agency in ‘Shades of Blue’, the effect shifts, at times seeming to echo cow and human longings for relationships not had, for lives spent in a shed; at times holding the cows in time and space, at times smothering and shrouding them in forced sentiment.

Across Arnold’s films, the night-time is an indeterminate, inner-outer space. A sensorially heightened zone of potentiality, abstraction, and dis/appearance in which she explores violations, transgressions and eros of the maternal. Wasp, another fictional short, follows Zoe, a mother of four young children, who is asked on a date by a long-desired man. She tries to make arrangements that can’t be made, she hasn’t got access to means or support structure, she feels she can’t tell him about her children, and she brings them secretly to wait in the pub carpark. The environment seems to respond to and exaggerate what moves her; there is a dreamlike signification which comes from her orientation towards things. Zoe understands that she cannot be sexual, poor, and a mother – that if she is poor and sexual, she can be denied being a mother, and this threat surrounds her, tapping at the window, screaming out of the dark. When she says, full of longing for happiness, ‘I love this’, he says he always liked her, but ‘I don’t touch other people’s property’, and there is the threat contained in the sweet. There is a dizzying spatial anxiety – similar to the lurching feeling of the cowshed and the separation between Luma and her calf. Zoe crosses back and forth to check on the children, over the threshold of the pub where loud music heightens then at a certain point nulls the anxiety, where coloured lights and darkness create a stressful disorienting lostness until they become transportive, lulling her and the viewer into another state.

Still from Cow (2022)

One night, tenderly and lightly, Luma then a bull step into pen prepared for them. The farmworker seems nervous about the bull and slips quickly past, bending his body into an S shape. Luma and the bull follow each other slowly round the pen, until she stands still, and he licks her, all along her spine. Kali Uchis and Jorja Smith’s Tyrant echoes in the shed—‘what would you do with all that control?’—fireworks light up in the sky behind them and, after he has mounted her, Luma rests her head on the bull’s back. It is a disturbing presentation of eros, making turns between connotations of the bull and tyrannical masculinity and human sexual narratives within this literal context of violent exploitation and enforced reproduction. But, like the portrayal of intimacy of Luma’s brief time with her calves, it is insisting on the relational depth of the reproductive, maternal basis of dairy farming. That although it denies those relationships, it is painfully unsevered from the desire and the will for them. The eros and pleasure of this sex scene, like the pleasure when they go out to the fields and Luma throws her head up to the night sky closing her eyes, feel in chorus with Reines’ plea that ‘An integrity must come back to body, and from thence, into a world, a world where a body can adore another one, or the sun, or a part of a thought under it, or the night…’[4]

The violence that Arnold circles is both of intense closeness and vastness. Her films seem to grapple with how to be close enough to comprehend the specific violation of intimacy without blocking out the scope of the structural and interconnected. How to consider both whilst conjuring the fullness of her subject’s capacity for desire and pleasure. Her use of metamorphic sensory qualities seems to carry an awareness of the precarity of Luma and Zoe to being denied their integrity and completeness. There are many acts of disappearance: the way the milking shed music drowns Luma’s lows after she is separated from her last calf, the unchanged tone of voices, the unchanged routines, as her body distorts and swells and slips, as her eyes dull. Her execution is brief and calm, as Reines’ poem, titled ‘I am not a prophet, I am a husbandman’, explains: ‘anyway, the solid girl was not going to hold water. So, puncturing her didn’t matter in the end’. [5]

[1] Reines, Ariana. (2006) The Cow (New York: Fence Books), p.101

[2] Billie Eilish and Khalid, “Lovely”, 2018

[3] Charlotte Day Wilson, “Work”, 2016

[4] Ariana Reines, The Cow, p.56

[5] Ibid. p.23


Bryony Bodimeade is a writer and editor based in London.


The body, proximity, and place can be far-reaching and boundless—this series intends to question these complex questions through different experiments with language, art, cultural phenomena, and writing as practice, and is led by editor-in-residence Hatty Nestor.